Sugiyaa Hikosaburo was a Japanese man who pursued cultivar development of tea throughout his life. In his hometown of Shizuoka, he is called “Hikosaburo Okina (old man)” and respected even after his death.

In this article, we're going to explain Hikosaburo, the father of “Yabukita”.

Who is Sugiyama Hikosaburo?

Hikosaburo Sugiyama was born in 1857 in Arito Village, Abe County (now Shizuoka City). He gave up his father's liquor brewery and Chinese medicine practice to his younger brother, who became a farmer.

Around the time of Hikosaburo's birth, Japan concluded the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States. As a result, tea became the second largest export item after raw silk and became a flourishing industry. During this time, Hikosaburo Sugiyama began tea cultivation, learning from experience and without a teacher.

Due to the rapid development of the tea industry, he became the secretary of the tea industry association, which controlled the inferior products in the mixed tea industry. Still, his sincere character can be seen from his recollection that he was ashamed of not being able to produce good quality tea himself.

Hikosaburo was ashamed of not being able to produce good tea by himself, which shows his sincere personality.

Although he succeeded in breeding the "Yabukita" after much hard work, he died in 1941 at 83, without ever seeing it flourish.

Today, a monument to his achievements stands in Shizuoka City, and the original "Yabukita" tree has been designated a natural monument by Shizuoka Prefecture. There is also the "Sugiyama Hikosaburo Award," which is given to those who have contributed to the tea industry.

The achievements of Sugiyama Hikosaburo who changed Japanese tea

The Beginning of "Cultivar Breeding"

Hikosaburo, who had cleared his land and created a tea plantation, was almost self-taught in tea cultivation. Instead, he learned tea making from officials of the Kannou Bureau (an internal bureau of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of agricultural promotion) and his distant relative, the tea master Yamada Bunsuke.

He learned tea making from his distant relative, Yamada Bunsuke, a tea master who believed that "to make good tea, you need good tea leaves."

Hikosaburo realizes that some teas grow faster and some slower and that the quality of tea leaves cultivar depends on the cultivar.

These things are now taken for granted, but at that time, it was commonplace to have different broad cultivars of tea in a single tea plantation, and the quality of the tea leaves harvested varied widely. Under such circumstances, this realization was a great discovery and the first step toward improving tea cultivars.

Development of “Yabukita”

Convinced that good tea plants were necessary to produce a stable supply of high-quality tea, Hikosaburo focused on improving tea cultivars. However, this was a process of trial and error without any academic knowledge.

Today, what Hikosaburo did is recognized as "breed improvement," but people did not understand him and treated him as an eccentric at the time.

Even so, from around 35, he began to develop new varieties one after another. Finally, he selected good tea trees and named the one planted on the north side of the bush "Yabukita" and the one planted on the south side "Yabu-Minami" and started cultivating them. The "Yabukita" was found to be resistant to disease and easy to grow, producing tea leaves with a well-balanced flavor.

Although "Yabukita" was recognized for its quality after its announcement, it was not until 14 years after Hikosaburo's death that it finally spread throughout Japan due to the intervening war.

Dedicated to promotion of the local tea industry

Hikosaburo Sugiyama's achievements were not limited to cultivar improvement.

In his fifties, he finally found a supporter in Kahei Otani, the chairman of the Central Chamber of Tea Industry. He worked on a cultivar improvement project at the test site, but when Otani stepped down as chairman, he could not obtain continued support from the Central Chamber of Tea Industry and was forced to give up the test site.

However, the 77-year-old Hikosaburo did not give in to this predicament.

He continued his research at the tea plantation he had purchased and asked for the cooperation of young men in the neighborhood to pass on the knowledge and experience he had gained in breeding to future generations. He also generously shared his expertise with neighboring farmers, and when new machines were developed, he was quick to introduce them and mechanize the tea industry. This is why he is still called "Mr. Hikosaburo" in his hometown, even after his death.

Click here to read an article detailing the process of "breed improvement" that Hikosaburo pursued throughout his life.

Three episodes telling the passion of sugiyama Hikosaburo

The man called “a weasel”

It is said that to find good tea plants, Hikosaburo wandered around the tea fields day and night, sometimes even entering people's fields. Even though he was ridiculed as a "weasel" for crawling on the ground and moving around in the tea fields, he never stopped searching for the perfect tea tree.

Whenever he found a tea tree, he thought, "this is the one!" So he chewed the tea leaves raw and examined them so thoroughly that he was missing his front teeth.

He put all his passion into his search for the ideal cultivar.

Travel anywhere for tea trees

Hikosaburo's passion for finding good tea moved him endlessly.

In an era when transportation was not well developed, he traveled all over Japan and even to Korea in search of tea plants. He always brought along water moss for water retention and sometimes stuck branches into the cut ends of vegetables to get back good tea plants when he found them.

Even if all his 20 years of hard work is turned into firewood

Hikosaburo was 77 years old when he lost his supporters and was forced to give up the test land. All the tea trees he had poured his heart and soul into growing for more than 20 years at the test site were pulled out and used as firewood.

Despite his advanced age of 77, Hikosaburo's passion for continuing his research and nurturing the next generation of tea growers can be described as his persistence.

When you think of the hard work and passion that Hikosaburo Sugiyama, who was an amateur tea grower, spent his life to achieve, you may feel that his usual tea is something special and flavorful.

January 08, 2023